Why are International Schools so Popular?

Article written for Scholato.

International schools have grown exponentially in the past 20 years. From c. 2,500 schools and 1 million students — mostly expatriates — in the year 2000, to over 12,000 international schools enrolling over 6 million students, mostly from the host countries in 2021 (ISC Research, January 2021).

Why is there such strong demand for international education? And why is that demand no longer driven by international expatriates, looking for continuity of education for their children as their work takes them from country to country, but by local parents instead? It is natural to expect that as incomes rise, wealthy and middle class families looking for quality education consider private institutions which they can now afford, but why do they turn to international schools specifically?

One reason is that the first language of international schools, wherever they are, is English. Parents see a grounding in English as a basic necessity for a successful career in the future, no matter what their children’s future choice of location or industry. English is seen as the key to global mobility and the best opportunities, independent of where they are located in the world.

Another reason is that international schools are best placed to prepare students for global universities, especially those located in the US and the UK. The world’s best universities demand not just fluency in English, but also qualifications they recognize. Most international schools offer either the American, the British or the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, which global universities are well familiar with.

But most fundamentally, the reason why parents choose international education is because they want their children to develop a global mindset, free of the limits that local education can sometimes impose on them. Take the IB program for example, one of the most modern and innovative curricula in the world, now implemented by over 5,000 schools worldwide. The aim of the program, developed independently of government and national systems, is to encourage students “to think critically and challenge assumptions” (from the IBO website). This is not something easy to do, as shown by students switching from local schools into IB schools and struggling initially. Having been used to memorize information and repeat it during written and oral examination within specific fields (an approach common to many systems in the world, from continental Europe to Asia), they find it hard to research and form their own opinion in a multidisciplinary way.

Given the expectations placed by parents on the education they receive from them, increasingly international schools look for the most ingenious ways to deliver quality education and prepare their students for the university path they have chosen. Organizations like Millie Group have emerged in the past few years to address precisely this need.

Millie exists to support international school students take the next steps towards the future they dream of, either directly or in partnership with their international school counsellors. When working with schools, Millie addresses two broad types of needs: those coming from recently established schools, sometimes in remote locations, and those coming from more established schools in mature markets. While the former look for ways to get up to speed quickly on the requirements of global universities and how to prepare best, the latter seek for more advanced ways to differentiate from other schools.

By leveraging a global network of mentors, Millie is able to address both sets of demands. Millie mentors support students across university-entrance preparation needs, such as essay writing support, test preparation, tutoring and college counselling, but also cover more holistic needs around career and life guidance. This unique approach also conforms to the reality of the international school market: no two schools are the same, and there is no “one size fits all” approach that works in this space.

As a social enterprise, it is critical for Millie to impact all students, not just a select few. Their Partner School Program is free and gives schools and students access to all of their content, live and recorded. To date, they have produced over 150 hours of curated videos on topics ranging from how to start a podcast as a high school student, to careers in management consulting or UX/UI design. Millie mentors feature on webinars and panel discussions every Saturday, giving partner schools and students a regular stream of content they can tap into and interact with live.

The growth in international schools seems unstoppable. By 2030, ISC Research estimates, the number of international schools and students will roughly double. Millie has built its foundations and expertise — from its network of mentors to a tailored approach to each school’s needs — to be along for the ride and become the go-to partner sustaining the schools’ mission of nurturing the global citizens of tomorrow.

Edtech entrepreneur, co-founder of Millie.